Thursday, December 30, 2010

On Coincidence

Some time ago, I edited a manuscript that was crammed with coincidences. If the characters were searching the wilderness and got lost, they would just happen to find what they had been looking for all along. Or they walked into a restaurant and spotted a person they needed to interview. Or they found a phone that just happened to belong to a long-lost and very important relative who held the clue to solve the whole mystery. On and on it went, one coincidence after another, until the whole felt like nothing but a series of accidental adventures.

And yet, when it came time to revise the plot, we didn't eliminate all of the coincidences. I thought long and hard about it, consulted some of my favorite writers handbooks, and ultimately came up with a rule of thumb that's proved useful -- and correct -- just about every time this has come up. So here's that rule:

If the coincidence creates a complication, it can remain in the plot.
Otherwise, get rid of it.

The way to evaluate this is with a simple cost-benefit type of analysis. What's the direct result of the coincidence? Is that result positive or negative? Does it solve a problem or create a problem? Does it answer a question or pose a question? It can stay only if it's a true negative, not a mixed blessing.

This might seem like a strange way to evaluate coincidences in a plot. You might think the better solution would be to justify the coincidence by explaining how it came to happen. "He found the lost phone because the phone's owner stopped for pie in that same cafe. He stopped for pie because he was hungry, and he was in the area because he was driving from Toledo to Dubuque to visit an ex-girlfriend." The thing is, you can spin that explanation out for hours, and all it really does is slow the pace of the story by cramming a lot of backstory and exposition into the text. This isn't going to do your plot any favors. Plus, it sounds like an awful lot of rationalization, maybe even an excuse.

The trick instead is to get the reader to accept the coincidence and keep moving forward through the plot. The reader is less likely to accept a coincidence that looks like nothing more than luck. Remember GMC? Goal, motivation, and conflict, the building blocks of a well-paced plot. The C doesn't stand for coincidence, and there's no L for luck. We want to read about characters who struggle to reach objectives and overcome obstacles. We want to read about characters who try to reach a goal and fail, and fail some more, until finally through tenacity and smarts and force of will, they succeed. Not about characters who try and fail and then get bailed out of their mess by a smile from heaven.

So, if a coincidence amounts to a complication, it fits into this pattern. It's an obstacle on the path, and it's what the reader wants, so its coincidental nature will be less troubling.

Keep in mind, though, that the coincidence must still fit into the plot as a whole. It must bear some logical relevance to everything else going on in the story. That is, you don't want the characters in a contemporary diamond heist plot to get kidnapped by aliens and beamed to another galaxy. That might complicate the plot, but it doesn't fit the plot. But that's a whole 'nother issue in plotting.


Wednesday, December 29, 2010

“That for which we find words is something already dead in our hearts. There is always a kind of contempt in the act of speaking.”


I think he's saying that when we can find words to express emotion, we're performing-- it's not true anymore. What do you think?

Alicia, who says, "Jane Austen, eat my dust! And Sherlock, I'm coming for you!"

To Alicia

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Depressing industry talk

More depressing year-end publishing roundup. You've been warned.


More Kindle

Someone told me I could email pdfs to my Kindle? How do I do that?

Hey, my book is available for free at the Kindle store. You don't need a kindle, as you can download a reader to your computer and then the book. Why is this important? Well, my book is #5 on the bestseller list for, uh, free books (which doesn't actually sound so awesome, does it? ), and if this keeps up, I might beat JANE AUSTEN! And Sherlock Holmes!

So everyone please go download it? It's free!


Kindle recs?

The dh gave me a Kindle for Christmas, and I'm looking for recommendations, for books and apps that make it more useable. Suggestions?


Monday, December 27, 2010

Interesting Review

This post on Daily Kos is ostensibly a movie review for the Drew Barrymore film, Going the Distance, but it had a lot of smart things to say about the current trends in romantic comedy and links to another great piece from the New Yorker a few years ago. Worth reading.


Friday, December 24, 2010

"Idiolect": Your voice, your word choice

I was reading a short book on Shakespeare by Bill Bryson, and he mentioned Shakespeare's "idiolect" as an indicator that Shakespeare himself wrote his plays. That is, now with computer analysis, we can quite accurately know what words and terms Shakespeare used and didn't use and how often. The distinguishing pattern of word choice in an author is the "idiolect," the person's idiosyncratic lexicon.

So, for example, Bryson says that Shakespeare seldom used the word "also". And he used the old-fashioned term "brethren" instead of the more common "brothers". He used many leather tanning terms (his father was a glover) and built new images and metaphors around the flowers of his rural youth. No one else is likely to get this combination of word choice, this idiolect-- it's sort of like a voice fingerprint.

Anyway, not that anyone's likely to run computer analysis of our own lexicon, but if someone did, what would be the markers of your idiolect?

I know mine would be kind of boring, because my most common words would be "just" and "then". What about yours?

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Myth and Paradox

"Every myth is driven by the obsessive need to solve a paradox that cannot be solved."
~ Wendy Doniger, in the Foreword to Myth and Meaning: Cracking the Code of Culture by Claude Levi-Strauss (emphasis in original)

Okay. So I've been reading a lot of cultural anthropology lately, particularly the mid-20th century structuralists. If you're a writer who came up in the era of the Disney memo and its aftermath, you've already been exposed to a subset of these ideas. Chris Voegler's book, The Hero's Journey, was basically a recodification of Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces in screenwriting terms. I think technically Campbell would be classified a comparative mythologist rather than a true structuralist, but I think nobody would dispute that his work was related to what came later from the structuralists. Certainly, they were all looking for commonalities among groups of folkloric stories.

In any case, if you've read Voegler or Campbell, you've been exposed to one collective myth analysis. What I've been reading lately are similar studies about other kinds of collective myths -- that is, myths other than the hero's quest. Not all the work of the comparative mythologists and structuralists is relevant to writers, but some of it is. Levi-Strauss's studies of Pan-American myths have been particularly fascinating to me (especially the stuff on twinning and untwinning -- whoa dayumn), and Vladimir Propp's work on Russian folk tales has been a thought-provoking read. Highly recommended if you're interested in that sort of thing.

For something like the past ten years, I've been quietly proposing my own theory that genre romance novels are, at their core, an attempt to recast the woman's sociobiological paradox into a pleasant and easily digested story type with a guaranteed positive outcome. And Alicia has been saying for quite some time that romance novels are folkloric in nature. We didn't pull these ideas out of thin air -- for my part, I was strongly influenced by, again, an anthropological study I read some years ago, which I can no longer cite because I can't find it. (But why is it always the anthropologists who are making these bells chime?) The study was either commissioned or produced by a Harvard professor, and it made for fascinating reading. I wish I could tell you more than that, but all I ever had was a paper copy of the study and only heaven knows where I put it. I may have lost it in a move a few years ago.

In any case, the paper addressed the two sociobiological functions of both genders and how that has influenced gender roles. The female's two functions are to get pregnant and to feed the young. The male's are to inseminate females and to fight off predators.

It's that grouping, or that division of roles, if you prefer, that causes a paradox. The female needs a male to get pregnant, of course, but she also expects him to fight off predators. Except that sometimes the male himself is a predator. So she needs to bring a potential predator close in order to keep other potential predators away. The trick for the female is to find a man who is willing to fight others but not willing to fight her. She has to trigger his protective instincts rather than his battle instincts.

In romance novels, the hero almost never starts off as perfect hero material. He's an unreachable lone wolf, or a brooding wounded heart, or a charming rogue who's delightful to be around but can't be trusted in an emergency. The heroine recognizes this in him, this initial tendency in him to have traits that might not make him such a perfect partner. And she also generally recognizes traits in him that would make him a worthy partner, things like strength and size and power. The journey of the romance novel is one in which the heroine develops trust, the hero develops protectiveness, and both of them develop mutual love and passion.

We retell this story over and over in genre romance novels and other formats because it's an important myth. I don't mean "myth" in the sense of something that doesn't exist -- in fact, happy marriages and good partnerships do exist, and plenty of them. I mean "myth" in the anthropological sense of a story that is part of a cultural tradition or heritage. These are stories that contain a deeper meaning, something almost primal. These are stories that help us understand the world and our parts in it. For female readers of romance novels, these may be stories that help us understand the almost instinctive ways we identify and come to love good men.

In any case, all of this is just to say that I really got a kick out of the Doniger quote, and now you all know why. fwiw.


Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Danglers again

Came across a great dangler:

Twenty-five years after his death, essayist Paul Baron analyzes the seminal research of astronomer Rich Lewis.

That's an impressive feat, after-death analysis. Most of us plan on just lying in our graves and playing the harp, but this Paul Baron is spending his afterlife analyzing....

Oh! It's the astronomer who has been dead 25 years! Gee, in that case, you'd think the modifier (Twenty-five years after his death) would go right next to the identification of the dead person! Like:

Essayist Paul Baron analyzes the seminal research of astronomer Rich Lewis twenty-five years after his death.
Twenty-five years after his death, the research of astronomer Rich Lewis is still considered seminal by essayist Paul Baron.
Or what?

And I do NOT want to hear that "the reader will figure it out." It's not the reader's job to fix the writer's mistakes and make sense where the writer has written nonsense. If the reader pauses for a moment to figure out what we really meant to say, not only have we lost the "meaning momentum," but we've also lost credibility-- the reader can't trust what we're writing.

Write, but then read. Read as a reader.


Sunday, December 19, 2010

Conspiracy theory

Conspiracy theories make for great fiction and film. Many bestsellers posit conspiracies that would seem to take more infrastructure and organization than we expect in our own world... but that's why they fascinate us.

As I said, the worldview of a conspiracy-theory novelist is usually (for the time of writing the book), "Everything is connected." Some secret organization or subversive powerful interest group is controlling a series of seemingly disconnected events in order to achieve some hidden goal. This makes for fascinating reading, especially when it's coupled with important cultural objects (The DaVinci Code) or seminal historical events (Winter Kills, which derives, as so many fictional and non-fictional conspiracy theories do, from the JFK assassination). I think one reason we are intrigued by books like these is they bring order to what seem like random and usually negative events, and by positing a sort of single master villain, make it more possible to imagine correcting or preventing disaster. That is, a single big conspiracy, however scary, is easier to deal with than a bunch of random events, so the essential task of "social" popular fiction -- to disrupt then restore order-- seems more difficult and interesting, but ends up easier.

Anyway, a question I have is-- if you are going to have a sleuth or investigator discover the conspiracy and follow the clues through, do you want someone who believes in conspiracy, who is already of the mindset that "Everything is connected?" Or would you rather go with someone who is skeptical and might even have reason to reject the conspiracy and has to be convinced?

DaVinci Code uses a semiotician as a slueth, that is, someone academically trained to see connections and signs in everything. (In fact, when I was reading Chronic City, I realized that the conspiracy theorist/semiotician in the middle of that was almost schizophrenic-- there seems to be a fine line between the semiotician seeing signs in how Mother's Day cards are arranged, and the schizophrenic hearing radio transmission through his tooth fillings.) The advantage here is that he is trained to interpret and connect, and doesn't have to be taught. Also, I guess, he doesn't have to be convinced. He can get right into the investigation without having a lot of resistance to the notion of a conspiracy. He hits the ground running (literally).

But in Winter Kills, the disaffected young brother of the assassinated president has an incentive not to investigate. The whole world has accepted the conventional wisdom, and he quickly realizes that yanking at this loose thread (a deathbed confession) might lead to information he doesn't want (family involvement). He has to be drawn in to believing in the conspiracy.

So, two questions:
1) What characterizes a good opportunity for a conspiracy theory story? Why, for example, has the JFK assassination engendered so many conspiracy theory stories, and 9/11 (which probably has at least as much official secrecy and unanswered or misanswered questions, and inadequate answers) hasn't?

2) If you had to pick a protagonist/investigator for a conspiracy theory, would you choose one who already was open to such theories, or a skeptic, and why? For example, if you watch Law and Order, SVU, there's an odd couple-- Munch, who is probably a licensed paranoid, who never met a conspiracy theory he didn't accept-- and Finn, a real skeptic, who doesn't believe in God, apple pie, or any theory at all. If you had a conspiracy theory novel, which sort of protagonist would you choose, a Munch who was predisposed to believe it, or a Finn who is predisposed to disbelieve it and has to be persuaded?

And of course, why, and under what circumstances? And what do you see as the hallmarks of the conspiracy novel?

“Searching is half the fun: life is much more manageable when thought of as a scavenger hunt as opposed to a surprise party.”
Jimmy Buffett


Friday, December 17, 2010

Head Over to Romance University

Today at RU, I give a list of ten ways to add emotion to your story. Can you add to the list?


Subtext again

Frasier, as Robert McKee says, is the greatest British sitcom set in America. (I don't know what it means, but it sounds good.)

Anyway, I saw this "Bulldog proposes" episode and the ending is pretty amazing. One character tells the truth, and the other, to spare his feelings, misinterprets, and the first (Bulldog) graciously accedes to this interpretation, and while responding in the same vein, reveals even more what the truth is.

Great writing, and my point is, never assume that just telling the surface is sufficient. The important stuff is often subtextual, because humans are complicated creatures.

For that matter, so are cats. My cat's meows contain more subtext than an Ian McEwan novel.

Here's the Frasier episode, and it's all good (Frasier was the best written sitcom of its time, and best acted), but the scene I'm talking about starts at 15:10 or so).


Thursday, December 16, 2010

Online Style Guides

Yesterday as a result of a new story, I discovered that the Navy style guide is now online. If you write about SEALs or other sailors, this might be useful for dialogue and official jargon.

Here are some other links that might be useful if you're investigating questions of style.

AP Stylebook Online
AP advocates a style which is less formal than academic writing but not as casual as dialect. If you write for newspapers, magazines, or genre fiction publishers, you'll generally be safe with AP.

The Economist Style Guide
This concise guide is useful if you want a more thoughtful tone in your prose. Is your character highly educated? Is he a CEO or other money guy? This might come in handy.

The big three of academic style. Most of the ordinary manuscript format rules (double-spaced, one-inch margins, page numbers in corners, etc.) come from academic style.

Strunk & White
A general style guide aimed at ordinary writing. This is really basic stuff. No excuse for not knowing these rules. (I have special love for rule II.7, of course.)

Then there are the specialized style guides and online dictionaries. Is your character a doctor? Maybe you need to look at AMA style for that memo he writes in chapter six. Was he born and raised in London? Maybe you need this English slang dictionary. Is your hero a retired athlete? Here's a brief sports terms dictionary.

The point is that there are multiple layers to manuscript style. It needs an appropriate format to be ready for submission. It needs appropriate grammar and mechanics and usage within the text itself. And it needs characters who sound like the people the author intends them to be. Style guides can help the writer achieve all of these goals.


Wednesday, December 15, 2010


I've been seeing a lot of random errors in capitalization lately -- these things do tend to come in waves, though it's anyone's guess as to why. I deal with writers all over the world through an assortment of classroom, workshop, private coaching, and other settings. These folks sure aren't being exposed to the same ideas or instruction that would lead to these errors suddenly cropping up. Just something in the air, I guess.

Lately, it's been overuse of caps, rather than under-use. Random common nouns, in particular, are getting heavyweight status. It would be as though in this Sentence we chose to cap -- well, you see it. This might be a result of chatspeak trends where people use caps to emphasize words, but it's probably not something you want creeping into your fiction unless you're writing something highly stylized and tightly controlled.

Use a capital letter:

* At the beginning of a new sentence

* For names and other proper nouns (Mary Smith, France)

* For formal titles when used in conjunction with names (Lady Mary Smith, Chief Wiggam)

* For the titles of specific geographic locations (Lake Michigan, Ohio Street) and for designations related to these locations (Italian-American, New Yorker)

* For the proper names of institutions, organizations, businesses, and government bodies (English Department at the University of Chicago, League of Women Voters, Doolittle’s Bar and Grill, Internal Revenue Service)

* At the beginning of a direct quotation (Mary said, “Let’s go to Doolittle’s.”)

* For the pronoun I

* For calendar items (Tuesday, Christmas Eve)

* For words in the title of a book or other work of art, including the first and last word and all other words except articles, coordinating conjunctions, and short prepositions

* For the call letters of radio or television stations

If it's not on this list, don't cap it. Easy, right?


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Introspection: Useless and useful

I think a lot of writers have been told to limit introspection (the narrative expression of a character's thoughts and feelings). This was in response to the tendency in writers writing in deep point of view to paragraph after paragraph that take place entirely in the character's mind. (Hmm. I used to write whole scenes in the character's mind. "But nothing happens!" would be the editorial response. :)

So of course, everyone swings to the opposite side, so there's action, dialogue, and description, but no introspection. I've been seeing this in submissions lately, scenes which are in a character's point of view but with very little thought/feeling-- it's all action and dialogue.

Okay, so let's talk about this. When is introspection useless, and what kind of introspection?
What's useful, and when? What about discussing how you handle this in your own scenes?

Let's say there's a scene of the heroine slipping into her boss's office while he's at lunch, to steal a file folder with some important evidence he's hiding, and the hunky IRS agent comes in and she has to tell him what she's doing in there (presumably not the truth). Where would you report her thoughts and feelings, and what would you NOT do?


Sunday, December 12, 2010

Self-deception-- Character/scene question

Question. Let's say you have a point-of-view character who is lying to himself. Example:
Tony grew up in a vagabond family, and never put down roots. Now he's grown and he's chosen his own path of stability. He bought a home, keeps the same job for years, even drinks at the same pub every Saturday evening. He's as settled as they come.

But his brother comes into town and suggests a grand adventure, "like the ones Mom and Dad used to take us on," taking a couple months to hike the entire Grand Canyon. Tony would probably have to quit work, but so what?

Now how would you do a scene where Tony tells himself and his brother that an adventure is the last thing he wants? He marshals all sorts of good reasons he can't join bro, and they're good reasons. But underneath, he so wants to go. Really. The old vagabond spirit has been reawakened. But he knows his life is here in Podunkville, and he wants to want it. He doesn't want to want to run off with his brother for adventure.

So... how would you show him-- internally and in dialogue-- saying that of course he can't go vagabonding, that his life is here, that he doesn't WANT to leave, that he's never been happier, that of course he's not bored, that he's not that rootless wanderer anymore and has no desire to return to that life.

And how, within that, would you let the reader know (if not Tony) that he really is itching to go with his brother, that part of him longs for adventure, that he's at least partly lying to himself when he says he's no longer a vagabond even at heart?

That is, how do you show what he thinks is the truth, while letting the reader know it's at least partly self-deception?

I mean in first-person or deep third point of view, no omniscient.


Friday, December 10, 2010

Romance Endings

Romance follows fairy tale structure. Not mythic quest structure. Can't say that often enough. Study Voegler, study Campbell, if you think it will give you something to think about or a point of comparison. But never forget, dear romance author, that you're actually writing a fairy tale.

Exhibit A

Say it with me now. Fill in the blanks.

"And they all lived ______ _______ _______."

This concept is so intrinsic to genre romance that authors have shorthanded it: HEA, for Happily Ever After, a/k/a the way the good romance novel ends.

There is some debate about the shape and form of that HEA ending. Vladimir Propp, the Russian formalist who studied thousands of local wonder tales and created a 31-step template for this type of folklore, held that the final step was a wedding. All other steps -- whether obstacles, challenges, triumphs, or meetings -- led inexorably to the wedding IF the protagonist was successful on the journey. Cinderella marries the Prince in the final moments of her story.

Now we're less inclined to view a formal wedding ceremony as essential to the HEA. Now we discuss this ingredient in terms of the promise of commitment or the proof of an enduring relationship. Regardless, the final moments of a romance novel will demonstrate to the reader that the pair-bond has been created and will not break. The form of that pair-bond can vary a little, but its presence is mandatory.

Or, as Leslie Wainger puts it in Writing a Romance Novel for Dummies (which is actually a damned smart book),

The final expectation every reader has when reading a romance novel is that it will end with the hero and heroine expecting to spend their lives together and face any future trials as one.

Compare this to the mythic quest structure, which ends with the hero recrossing a threshold and becoming the master of two worlds. Dorothy returns to Kansas in the end and is as comfortable there as in Oz. But she doesn't marry the wizard, does she? Of course not. Marriage can occur along the path of the hero's journey, but it's not the destination.

I'm going to keep this short -- there's more I could say on this subject, but my goal in this post is to make you think about the differences between fairy tale endings and mythic quest endings. A lot of you are going to resist these ideas because you've been taught quest structure as if there are no other options. There are. And we use them. We just don't always recognize them.


Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Define "Ordinary"

We periodically get interested around here in the concept of ordinary world in the mythic quest structure. I don't know why this happens. I don't know why this is a hot button topic for so many writers. Do you?

In any case, last week on our working retreat to San Francisco, Alicia and I found ourselves once again talking about ordinary world and some of the concepts and comments we've kicked around here over the years. One concept in particular kept recurring -- that is, the difference between ordinary environment and ordinary character. This kept recurring because of last month's Ask an Editor column at Romance University, where I answered some FAQs about ordinary world. In part, that column mentions an idea advanced by the folklorist Vladimir Propp, namely, that folklore structure begins with an ordinary (pure and virtuous) character in a treacherous or unsettled environment. This is almost the perfect reverse of the ordinary world familiar to students of Campbell and Voegler, in which (in at least some iterations) an extraordinary character is placed into an ordinary environment for safekeeping.

It's Harry Potter versus Cinderella.

In Harry Potter, which tracks the mythic structure almost perfectly, the character is not ordinary. He has special abilities and powers which have been largely dormant or ignored. The special outside world associated with those abilities has been hidden from his view. He has been placed for safekeeping in an "ordinary world" -- in this story, the term is quite literal because nothing non-ordinary or magical can intrude.

Special character, ordinary world.

Cinderella follows fairy tale structure, but whether it follows it perfectly depends on which Cinderella we discuss. There are many versions of this tale, and not all of them include stepsisters. But for those that do, the set-up generally references a few key points:
  1. Cinderella is an obedient girl with a sweet, unassuming temperament.
  2. But this virtuous nature is uncoupled with any special powers or attributes.
  3. Her existing world is threatening or dangerous thanks to the presence of evil people in the home. (Resulting from Propp's "Absentation" -- the death of the mother, which disrupts the existing world.)
The question we often hear asked of Cinderella is, "How does she manage to remain so pure in that house?" Because, let's be honest, sooner or later many of us would snap and pummel the stepsisters with that damn broom. But Cinderella never does, and that purity of virtue is precisely what constitutes the "ordinariness" of this character type. In other words, one of the central tenets of this type of wonder tale is that goodness is an ordinary quality for a hero or heroine, that even in an impure world, a heroic character remains pure. It's their nature.

Mythic = extraordinary character in an ordinary world
Folkloric = ordinary (heroic) character in a threatening world

From there, the two structures deviate in particular ways even as they reflect each other. For example, in mythic structure, there's a call to action which is initially ignored. In folkloric structure, there's an interdiction which is similarly ignored. But where the myth demands action, the folk tale prohibits it.

In any case, this might be very interesting in an academic sense, but what has it to do with writing actual books? A book is written in scenes. (Please, Gods of Literature, let most books be written in scenes.) Scenes, as we've discussed many times here before, are composed of three elements:
  1. A character
  2. In meaningful motion
  3. Against a background
The nature of the three elements varies somewhat depending on the scene itself, but that's the basic recipe. Character, action, setting. And depending on the story form you're incorporating, your "ordinary world" might not refer to the world/setting at all, but to the character. Think about the source of ordinariness before the story kicks into gear -- don't merely think about how much ordinary world you need, or how to transition out of it, but think about what is ordinary and what changes.

But probably "ordinary" won't refer to the action. Anyone care to take a stab at explaining why?


Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Sequence and emotion

Another post about why sequence is essential:

The conflict of the earlier scene guides the emotion of the next scene. The reader will assume (rightly, of course) that the first event will have some effect on the characters, and that they will show that effect, even if they try to hide it, in the immediately succeeding scene.

So if we have, say, Tony discovering that the mole has to be in his own department in Chapter 12, then the romantic interlude in Chapter 13 isn't going to be just playful and flirtatious, as it might have been earlier. He is going to be preoccupied with this dilemma, and perhaps this has made him wonder who else is betraying him. So while he might try to participate in her playful flirtation, the dark distrusting mood will out. He might suddenly demand what she meant by some flirtatious line, or lose focus. And she will notice, and become more hesitant, wary of giving offense. Or maybe he'll be even more flirtatious than ever, but with a hard edge that says something's changed.

At any rate, what might have been just an interlude in, say, Chapter 8, becomes a development of emotional complexity in the aftermath of the event. So even if we have something that -has to happen- right here that doesn't directly descend from the Big Event, there's going to be emotional residue, and if we want the readers to believe in these characters, we have to show them plausibly affected by the events we put them through.

So maybe Beth has to go to work in the morning and pretend she doesn't know what she just found out. Or maybe Lionel has to drop his kids off at school and not say a word about being laid off. But no matter what, if this scene happens after they experience an event, they will show some (however subtle) effect of that event in their emotion, their interaction, their dialogue.

It always helps me to -- before I write the second scene-- imagine myself in the character's body after The Big Event, and let the feeling wash through me. Then I know when I write his flirtation, the harder edge will come out; that when I show her chatting with her colleagues, she might lose focus on what they're saying. Everything in the scene might be the same in terms of what happens, but how the character feels and acts within the scene will be different.

So think of a scene sequence you have, where there's some big troubling event. How are you showing the "residue" in the immediate next scene?


Saturday, December 4, 2010

Deep art thought

Art is the lie that tells the truth.

What do you think?


Thursday, December 2, 2010

Question about character motivation and action

More sequence stuff.

Let's say your main character has some traits or is going to commit some actions that are likely to come across as unsympathetic to the reader.

For example, the heroine is a liar. Can't get around it. She resorts to puffing up her accomplishments whenever she feels inferior or is put on the spot.

Now assume that's essential to the plot, that one lie is going to get her in big trouble and thus pull her into the plot of political intrigue.

Also you see her deceptiveness as coming from her past, growing up with an alcoholic parent who required heroine to lie frequently in order to keep the family together ("My mother has bronchitis, Mr. Smith, and can't come to work," "Oh, don't worry, Ms. Social Worker. Daddy is still here and he's the one who gets us off to school in the morning."). That is, you have a scene with her mother planned, something that will show that in her childhood, lying was a defense mechanism.

So... anyway, you have three characterization revelators, and I'm wondering in what order you'd put them, and why, and what result different orders might create.

Here they are:
1) The backstory about the alcoholic mother and deserting father and the need to lie. (This could be revealed in a flashback or in the present, maybe a phone call or meeting with her mother or someone else in the past-- your choice.

2) The lie which drags her into the main external plot-- THE lie.

3) The pattern of lying that makes it clear that THE lie isn't just a one-time thing.

Imagine that each of these would be revealed in its own scene. (That isn't the only way to do this -- you could smush two into the same scene, or reveal one over several scenes-- but for the sake of simplicity, let's consider that you have three separate scenes.)

In what order would you have them and why? I don't mean they all have to be together, but if you have one a lot later than the others, tell us why?


Tuesday, November 30, 2010

From the Style Guide: Who/Whom

Usage of whom is becoming increasingly rare. Some say it's inappropriate for casual genre writing. However, this depends in part on the tone of the manuscript. Use the overall tone as a guide.

The test for appropriate who/whom usage is fairly simple. Whom and him both end in the letter M. Who and he do not. If you can accurately substitute the word him in the phrase or clause under question, then whom also may be used. If you can accurately substitute he, then who may be used.

The new writer, (who/whom) submitted a manuscript today, has never published before now.

The clause in question is (who/whom) submitted a manuscript.
You would not say, “him submitted a manuscript.” You would say, “he submitted a manuscript.”
Therefore, the correct choice is who. (No M.)

Are you the right person to (who/whom) I should submit my manuscript?

The clause in question is to (who/whom) I should submit my manuscript.
You would not say, “I should submit my manuscript to he.” You would say, “I should submit my manuscript to him.”
Therefore, the correct choice is whom. (With the M.)


Monday, November 29, 2010

This Picture's Worth 50,000 Words

Worldview and subtext

Worldview is so integral to who we are and how we interact with reality that we can't always distinguish between what we believe and what might make sense to others. This is a good thing, because it gives us a place to stand, and a unique viewpoint.

However, I think worldview can also create unconscious subtext, and it's worth examining your own work for that.

Subtext can be conscious (like you want the reader to sense that this character is lying, or you want the reader to realize-- without your ever spelling it out-- that humans are afraid of death and that's maybe why they create religion), or unconscious (usually the subtle revelation of some issue you're dealing with personally, like death or feeling trapped in your life). Sometimes unconscious subtext can reflect a societal issue that might not even really affect you all that much personally but shows up in your writing just because this is pervasive in your culture.

What is pervasive in our culture, alas, is often hard to recognize from within. And what is a subconscious issue for us will also be hard to acknowledge (that's why it's still "sub"). When these two unconscious subtext coincide, whoa, Nelly! It might come out in our writing, and there we are, accidentally offending or alienating readers.

Worldview, as it's sort of our own personal subtext (the values or approach we don't consciously recognize), like cultural subtext, can be hard to notice from the inside. I grew up in the 60s, and what now is clearly the culture's attempt to put women down and make them feel like children was so pervasive, only the most discerning noticed it, like Betty Friedan. We actually accepted being told that we couldn't play "real basketball" in gym class because it would disrupt our ability to bear children. (I still remember we played something called "four corners," and the guards had to stay under the defensive basket, and the forwards under the offensive basket, and the center's role was to stay at half court and throw the ball from one to another-- because, you see, the uterus can manage repeated childbirth, but not running all the way down the court.)

Nowadays, tell that to Tamika Catchings and she'll laugh at you. But back then, we were surrounded by loud and subtle messages that told us we were put on earth for two related purposes, to please men sexually and to bear and raise children. It takes someone able to stand back and consider this reasonably to say, "Wait a minute." (And for that reason, I'd like to recognize Blacksburg High School's very own Jacqueline Robinson, Diane Frederick, who just wanted to play basketball, and kept bugging the school administration until they finally gave in and let her build and coach a team that could use the gym, only for a half hour at 7 am on a couple days a week, but at least it was something. And the next time someone fulminates against Title 9, remind them of that. Hey, Diane, wherever you are, hats off to you!)

Anyway, point is, we have to -- after we draft-- remind ourselves to look for subtext that we don't really mean but are perhaps the effect of our having a particular worldview. For example, that deeply person-focused worldview of some of the authors of the "collapse of 2008" books indicates that the most important element of anything is the people involved. Okay. But an aspect of that is blame. That is, there's a tendency (nothing wrong with this) to feature one person as "the villain," the one to blame. After all, if you subscribe to the Great Man theory of history, that major events are caused by important people, then bad major events will also be caused by someone-- the villain.

No problem there. Where the unconscious subtext might come in is if you have unwittingly absorbed your culture's prejudices and identify that culture's "outsider group" as the villain. (I'm not saying that the outsider isn't sometimes the villain-- but notice and determine consciously if that's so, or if you are just unconsciously reflecting your culture's prejudices.) Even if you think you can justify it, examine it as someone from the outside would. For example, I might have written a book about the 2008 crash, focusing on the investment bankers. Now if I profile 20 such managers, and single out three of them for scathing commentary on the bad things they did (trading short after they recommended long to their customers, using the corporate jet for personal purposes, engaged in risky trades with OPM -- other people's money, took big unearned bonuses), I might think, Hmm. Did all or most of the investment bankers do similar things? Yeah. So why did I focus on these three? I might even think that they're not all alike. After all, one is an African-American in New York, and this one is Pakistani and he's in London, and the third one is a Turkish Muslim and he's living in Singapore! See? They're all different!

Now imagine being someone from the outside, someone maybe from Mars who hasn't grown up in cultures permeated with human racism. (I say "human" because the Martians probably have their own form of racism. :) The Martian might say, "But they're all dark." Bingo. Somehow, unconsciously, I have profiled 20 investment bankers whose business practices are similar and "villainized" the three dark-skinned ones. (I am actually modeling this example on something in one of these books.)

But... but... I sputter. But I am not racist! I contribute to the United Negro College Fund! I send my kids to an integrated school! I love Kanye!

Well, if I'm not actually racist, I should be able to understand why others might wonder if I am. That is, I should move beyond the limitations of my own ego and my own worldview and regard this more objectively. And if I don't want readers -- just some readers; subtext is never picked up by all readers, but that doesn't mean it's not there-- I should realize that this might be an unfortunate effect of having a worldview (which is a GOOD thing overall), and consider what to do to mitigate it.

So what do I do? Clearly it's easier to do this in fiction, where with a stroke of my mighty pen, I can turn that Pakistani in London into the heir to an impoverished earldom, who grew up with all the luxuries and will do anything to keep them. There! Now I have three villains, and only 2/3rds are non-majority race.

Harder in non-fiction, where people don't transform so easily. But I can be objective and see that it wasn't just the minority bankers who used the corporate jets and insisted on private elevators. And these three weren't actually any more the villain (as in the ones that caused the bad stuff to happen) than the other 17. So whether or not I focused on these three because of their non-majority status, or for some other reason, I might consider if I could focus on one of the 17 as emblematic of the snobbery and rottenness. Or I might (if I pride myself on my depth of characterization) introduce some nuance, learning to love and not just scorn these characters.

Point is, we need to step outside ourselves sometimes. We are not our readers, after all. We might not realize how what seems perfectly plausible to us might be off-putting to reader who do not have our particular worldview. This doesn't mean you can't be unique and speak from your own perspective. I'm just saying that you might want to examine your own presentation for undesired and unconscious problems. We might need to use both the unconscious and the conscious parts of our brain. And we need to be both writer and reader-stand-in, making sure that we convey what we want to convey, and not what we don't.


Sunday, November 28, 2010

NaNo Update

Right now, I'm at a 46,672 words in my nanawrimo manuscript. I expect to clear the 50k mark by midday Monday, leaving Tuesday, the last day of the nano month, to travel to meet Alicia for a week-long work and wine fest.

This has been an interesting adventure, to put it mildly. I was apprehensive because I didn't think I could cram a single extra task into my already overpacked schedule, but I also know that I operate best when I have too much to do. It's like that old saying: If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it. Those of us who live this way know how to make things happen, and this month has been a reminder to me that I can always find a way to do more.

So here's how I did it. I don't know that there's anything earth-shattering here, but it's what I did and it's worked so far.

* I used Dr. Wicked Write or Die. This might the second greatest tech invention ever for writers, the first being word processing software. Thanks to this nifty little software, I learned that I can write about 1800 words in an hour when the scene is pre-plotted, and about 1200 words in an hour when it is not. This means that I was able to hit my nano target in usually around an hour a day. Not always possible to block out an entire hour in one swallow, but with careful planning, I was usually able to do it at least 4 days a week.

* I carry small notebooks with me everywhere. I wrote notes and scene roughs when waiting for new tires to be installed, when waiting for my brand new and suddenly flat tire to be repaired, when waiting in the school parking lot for the kid to get sprung, when waiting for the teller at the bank drive-up, and so on. (Usually I knit during those stray moments. My knitting has really suffered this month!) Not all of these scribbled notes went into my nano draft. Some of them were pre-plotting for scenes -- my scenes come faster when I rough them out in advance, so this was important for time management, if not for actual word count.

* I didn't worry about secondaries. All my focus has been on the three main characters and their main conflicts. Some of the secondaries, I sketched out in advance. Of the rest, some bloomed as I typed, like a housekeeper who had been in the shadows of several scenes, but suddenly became real and developed a recognizable voice at around the 30k mark. Or they are acting as placeholders until I can think through the lesser parts, like the hero's many siblings who decorate several scenes but don't really participate in the action -- they're tagged as Sister Two or similar until I can figure out whether to develop or cut them.

* Some of the subplot scenes have been written, but only in those places where the subplot intersects with the main plot. By not getting sidetracked with subplots, I've been able to keep my page count climbing at a steady pace. No distractions. Once I get the entire main plot roughed out on paper, I can see how much room I have for subplot development and go from there. I'm thinking the main plot will settle around the 75-80k mark, leaving plenty of room for some extra subplot scenes. We'll see. I haven't written any of the sex scenes yet, and those can gobble words by the thousands.

* I've used the crap out of twitter for motivation. There are loads of nanoers over there, and they're very upbeat and encouraging. I could always find impromptu sprints when it was time to write, because there was always some other tweep ready to go. (Hey, Lisa! Hey, Leona! *mwah*) I've found better support there than at the nano site itself, but that's in part because the nano site kept crashing or locking in the beginning of the month. But I'm very grateful to all my tweeps, whether nanoing or not, for keeping me amused during the long hours at my desk this month. My other work hasn't mysteriously vanished just because I added nano, and some of these days would have felt endless if I couldn't talk turkey (and lizards and assorted other creatures) with my tweeps in the stray moments between tasks.

* I blocked out several afternoons to meet a local nano friend at a coffee shop. My productivity was lower during those blocks of time, but my enthusiasm was higher. (It must be said -- she reached the 50k mark on November 20. She is a goddess.) I think the trade-off was worth it. There were times I wanted to chuck it all and go back to a more plodding pace, but Amy kept me honest. I'm really grateful for that.

* When I felt stuck, I went back over the draft and "spackled" it. My first drafts tend to be little more than dialogue with a bit of stage blocking and similar action. When I go back over the scenes, my first goal is to check all the action-reaction dynamics, followed by a spot-check of all the emotional signifiers. Then I try to think deeply about the setting and how to leverage it in the context of the scene's emotions and conflicts. Adding these details -- filling in the chinks between the lines of dialogue and blocking -- reminds me of spackling a wall because it makes the scene nice and smooth and pretty. This also adds necessary words and makes the scenes feel more finished.

* And whenever I started to worry that the writing quality is subpar or that the process is flawed, I stepped back and reevaluated. First drafts are always full of suck, so I can't let that stop me. Bad sentences can be fixed as long as the plot, pacing, conflicts, and other bigger elements work. This fast-draft process has been an invaluable tool for seeing the large-scale structure of this book unfold scene by scene. I'm going to keep up the pace until the first draft is done and then rewrite it scene by scene to make it, you know, less crappy. Will I use this process for every book? Dunno. I think the process worked for this book mainly because I've been kicking around the idea for over a year, so it was plenty ripe for the writing. Not sure it would work as smoothly for something less ripe.

So, let's hear it. For those of you doing nano, will you make the goal? What have you learned from the process? What are your best tips, and what pitfalls did you encounter?


Saturday, November 27, 2010

"The human heart in conflict with itself "

The Nobel Prize in Literature 1949

William Faulkner

William Faulkner's speech at the Nobel Banquet at the City Hall in Stockholm, December 10, 1950
Listen to an Audio Recording of William Faulkner's Banquet Speech (paragraph 1-4)
3 min.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work - a life's work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before. So this award is only mine in trust. It will not be difficult to find a dedication for the money part of it commensurate with the purpose and significance of its origin. But I would like to do the same with the acclaim too, by using this moment as a pinnacle from which I might be listened to by the young men and women already dedicated to the same anguish and travail, among whom is already that one who will some day stand here where I am standing.

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed - love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

Until he relearns these things, he will write as though he stood among and watched the end of man. I decline to accept the end of man. It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last dingdong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking.

I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet's, the writer's, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.

Worldview and story approach

I know I'm the only one obsessed with this, LOL. But I'm exploring the issue of how worldview-- comprehensive attitude, values, and viewpoints on the author's part-- influences the voice, and in fact is a part of the voice.

Now this comes to me because, as I've said before, I'm trying to get more of an understanding of the 2008 economic crisis, just for the heck of it-- or rather because I think it's emblematic of so much of what TODAY is, and everyone just breathed a sigh of relief that the worst didn't happen, and has moved on to other problems. It's like we gave a disaster and not only did no one come, no one even read the notice in the newspaper.

One book was about the HP "spying" scandal, and it's very narrow in scope, focusing very tightly on the boardmembers-- not on the company or the industry that might have caused the level of suspicion that leads to industrial spying. There was almost no discussion of the context, of what this all meant.

The narrowness of scope, I think, says something about the worldview. That is, the author just isn't interested in the big picture, in, say, indicting capitalism or big business. He's also not interested in exploring how the computer industry works, or the rivalries that have shaped it. He doesn't think of the issue as being the extension of historic forces, or the inevitable if regrettable result of the American culture, or even a sign of our decadent materialism or our readiness to innovate. In the "person-focused" scope, the worldview is that it's the people who matter, and they matter because of their position, not because of anything they do or cause.

Anyway, I keep reading books, trying to find someone, anyone, who has an important insight as to how this happened and what it means. Alas, this quest is hampered by the fact that most of the books are written by journalists or bankers, and neither of those professions seems to reward deep insight. And let's face it-- you can hardly expect a bracing critique of capitalism or even finance from those whose paychecks depend on Wall Street being Wall Street.

But I do think that it's more than self-interest that means so many of these books end up being insightless-- long on "what happened," and short on "why". I think it might be our worldview that makes us choose one profession over another, one interest over another. And that worldview is going to affect how we view a situation or present it or explore it.

One way to understand worldview is to do exactly this, to read a bunch of books about the same subject. It works better with non-fiction, probably, because the reality observed presumably doesn't change, so differences are usually attributable to the author's particular viewpoint-- what he/she chooses to discuss, and how. But it can work in fiction too, when there are several books that treat the same subject differently.

Example: The Middle Ages in Europe. Bernard Cornwell has a very different approach than Ken Follett. They're both interested in how cultures dealt with the transition brought by advances in engineering and technology, and how these affected the move towards individualism that would be the central attitude in the Renaissance.

However, Cornwell chooses to look at men at war, and the technology he deals with is the technology of weaponry and military strategy. Follett is much more interested in "ordinary people" deeply involved in the feudal and religious society, and his technology is about building of cathedrals-- a massive task, sure, but very much in the middle of the medieval world. Cornwell's characters are on the outside, in their own culture (military), where Follett's characters live in their corner of the wider world. Cornwell's characters are trying to conquer, where Follett's characters are trying to build (a cathedral). Both of these were actually quite important activities in the Middle Ages, a time of strife and construction. So they each prefer a "realistic" presentation, and this leads to minute and careful accuracy in description. Let's just say, neither of them are likely to introduce zombies into the landscape for some new kind of conflict.

However, what they choose to be realistic about reflects something about their worldview, I think. What? Well, I think part of it might be about whether they look more closely at individuals or groups, individual action or systems, whether there's more emphasis on how the people affect the culture, or how the culture affects the people.

The worldviews of both the authors, then, is focused on as much as possible (within fiction) accurately reflecting the real life of the characters in their Middle-Ages world. This reflects, I think, a worldview that privileges accuracy and realism, that the best historical fiction is that which most reflects history.

Contrast that with, say, Ellis Peters' long series of medieval histories. Peters also has a focus on characters rather than systems or processes or cultures. But while her handling of the medieval world is detailed and sure, her disinterest in "realism" rather than "believability" is shown in her choice of character and story type. After all, while the Middle Ages was famously brutal, probably there weren't actually quite as many interesting murders in one small city even so. And Brother Cadfael reflects far more the time he was created (the 1960s) than the time he supposedly inhabits (the 12th Century)-- he is a peace-loving, scientific minded hippie, really. Now this is not to diss these mysteries, which are wonderful. (I love them far, far more than the Cornwell and Follett books, which I suspect reflects MY worldview. :) Point is, Peters isn't really interested in faithfully replicating history-in-fiction. She is interested most in how humans interact, how small societies work, how people compromise their individualities in order to live in communities. While her stories are deeply imbedded in their time (the British Civil War -- the second one, Maude v. Stephen-- is going on throughout most of the series), they could be moved to another time with some modifications and work just fine. Her worldview is not a historical one, but a psychological/sociological one. She thinks the basic elements of humanity haven't changed that much, that young people will always fall in love, that old men will always think they know most everything, that people want to be liked, that the ones who prefer to be feared will end up with the power.

In fact, that's sort of my worldview too, and that's why, no doubt, I re-read these books constantly. I think probably the author whose worldview matches with yours is probably the one you love. :)

Okay, so anyway, by examining several books that are about the same topic, you can get a better idea of how worldview affects how the author presents the book. This has a parallel, btw, in the study of history. History, like fiction, has such a huge scope, so many possibilities for exploration, that most historians have to decide on an approach or worldview. These aren't mutually exclusive, but historians do tend to have an inherent focus, I think. I learned this when I worked at the state historical society, where one of my colleagues was fascinated with people (we were writing the history of newspapers in the state, and she loved finding out that one editor had moved in 1854 from the Madison Democrat to the Bloomington Herald). Another was obsessed with old systems, like how trains were scheduled.

There are many of these historical approaches, but I think the ones we novelists would recognize are:
The great man approach (focusing on Napoleon, say, the major figures who affected the event)
The everyman approach (finding how events affected the regular people in a society)
The systems approach (looking at how groups and governments changed things and responded to change)
The social evolution approach (societies are evolving, and history is the story of how a society evolves)

What intrigues me is how so many of these business books are relentlessly person-focused. It's weird, because it's like the "great man" approach in that these CEOs and stocktraders are presented as being worthy of the most minute description (this one was a valedictorian, that one skis at Aspen, this one drives a sports car). These are the men (always men :) who create and fuel the economy, smarter (and richer, but deserving) than the rest of us. Somehow in their biographies must be some answer to ... well, what? What happened? No, because usually the books that go into such exhaustive detail about where these titans of finance holiday accept without much question that none of these guys had any idea what was coming. The collapse of the industry is presented as something like the tsunami, an unexpected and devastating event. This might seem paradoxical, that these men were so clueless and helpless, and yet somehow are worthy of the Great Man treatment.

Now I would think that an exploration of systems (how the regulatory system failed, say, or how the marketing of mortgages to those who couldn't afford them came to be so essential to the economy) would probably get us closer to "what happened". That's the sort of book the economist Paul Krugman wrote, long on substance, short on sizzle. While this probably isn't any more fascinating than "This CEO went to Princeton, was Jamie Dimon's assistant at Citibank, and favored English tailoring and was ever known for his ascots," it has the virtue of stressing and finding causation as a worldview. "There is a reason this happened!" means "We can prevent it happening again!" So it's an oddly optimistic worldview, emphasizing the power of human-made structures to affect even the most complex situations.

But others might think that everything is socio-cultural, that what's interesting is exploring how a culture or society changes, how the culture beliefs and values cause something to happen. That's sort of what Michael Lewis does in his article about how Iceland's cod fishermen got bored with fishing and turned to currency trading, thereby bankrupting the country. What people are featured are usually presented as representatives of a certain group (bored cod fishermen); the culture is the star, and how people interact with the culture is shown to be central.

What of these would translate well into fiction? Well, one already has. A long article about the collapse of Bear Stearns (the first investment canary to falter in the CDO mineshaft) suggests darkly that a conspiracy was at the root of this. While the conspiracy theory worldview might not seem entirely plausible in non-fiction, it translates perfectly to fiction. Notice that the Oliver Stone Wall Street sequel bases the initiating event on just such a conspiracy (though it's not developed nearly as well, IMHO, as in the article-- note to Mr. Stone, merely announcing a conspiracy isn't enough). Is that a worldview? Yes. An author who (in reality or just when writing) thinks that disasters are the results of conspiracies is merging two common worldviews-- everything is connected, and no one can be trusted (or humans are innately bad).

This has gotten long enough! I will explore worldview and subtext in another post. Point is, anyway, that whether you recognize it or not, your worldview is a determinant of what you write and how you approach the topic, and demonstrate the assumptions you make about the world and people. How conscious of this are you? How conscious should you be?


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

What's wrong? What's next?

A writer friend is faced with turning a suspense plot with women's fiction elements into women's fiction with suspense elements. If you read both, you'll probably have some sense of how the emphasis will change from physical threat to emotional threat, from perhaps the danger being mostly in the future (implied threat of physical harm that might happen) to maybe something that happened in the past (some hidden problem that is currently causing conflict, whether recognized or not).

Anyway, I was listening to a lecture on "The Art of Reading" by Prof. Timothy Spurgin, and he mentioned that openings often present one of two questions:

What's wrong?
What's next?

I am thinking that those are good "genre questions" that can help you design a plot so that the story fits better into one category or another. I think of plot as "what happens," the events of the story. And "story" is how the events are presented, including sequence, journey, scene design, voice, all that.

Story is a lot more flexible than voice. And one big part of that is what the journey is, as that kind of determines whether the plot goes mostly forward or mostly back, and that determines even more. "What's wrong?" might be a good start to a women's fiction story, while "what's next" could be a good question for a suspense story.

Let's start out with a similar set of precipitating events. A woman is abducted, abused, and left for dead. (This is grim!) The action starts a couple years later, when she's living in New Orleans and has a catering business.

Now a "what's wrong" story would mean probably that, well, something's wrong. Maybe the trial is over and the abductor is in jail and she's trying to move on. But she keeps having nightmares about the abduction, only the sequence of events is different in her nightmares than in her memories. So she goes to a hypnotist to figure out why she can't let go of this and move on. And the journey is towards her discovering what's wrong with her, what she doesn't remember that happened in the past.

On the other hand, in a suspense novel, the threat has to be present and threaten danger in the future. So she can have pretty much recovered and be living happily, when the abductor's girlfriend sends her a Christmas card. Only the abductor is safely ensconsed in the prison and swears he has no girlfriend. And then there's a bouquet of roses left at her door. And then there's a box of candy left on the seat of her car. And then....

You might actually start with "what's wrong" and have the "wrongness" precipitate "what's next," like she's got amnesia about the events, and has been useless in the trial of the abductor, and he gets off, and comes after her with threat after threat. And only by remembering the past can she overcome the new danger of "what's next?" (Suspense)

Women's fiction is usually a pretty flexible genre because it mainly just means "character-based fiction that mostly women will read", and it can incorporate mystery, suspense, romance, whatever you want.

What characterizes women's fiction is -- no matter what other elements there are-- the emphasis is always on the woman's journey from one psychological place to another. For example, a woman discovering the secret of her past is very common. Or a woman coming to terms with aging or the loss of a loved one. Or a woman constructing or reconstructing a family. As long as you have something like that, you can call it women's fiction even if there's a murder in it!

One of the first wave of the current type of women's fiction was Ordinary People, where we are introduced to a family where something is clearly wrong. They're not connecting. The mother is remote and uncaring. The father is anxious. The son is acting out. What's wrong? Well, an older son was killed in a boating accident the year before, and the family has found it easier not to talk about it, to "move on" without grieving. And it's not until the surviving son starts going back in therapy and understanding what happened that terrible day that the family can heal.

For women's fiction, the best plan is always to deepen the emotion and psychology of the journey. For example, she might not just find out about what really happened, she might find out why she suppressed the real memory. Or in investigating the abductor's past, she might discover her own and realize that she'd never known that her grandfather was connected to the Mafia.

Of course, you can make it a "suspense with women's fiction elements," and that's a matter of emphasizing the danger from pretty much the beginning-- a detective arrives to tell her, maybe, that the abductor has escaped.

How you tell the story, your emphasis, will make all the difference in genre. It really does help to read deeply in the popular fiction genres and analyze particularly the openings. Often to move into a new genre, you don't really have to change your plot much, just the presentation, particularly how you present the first few chapters, what you emphasize, what you hide.


Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Monday, November 22, 2010

Le mot juste

The right word... well, a single word can convey a lot. There are words with connotations that can come across as positive or negative. Connotation can be situation-dependent, so what is positive in one context can be negative in another. That's why precision of language can be so important, because some words mean more than what they mean.

I was reading an article about family money issues. It was just one of those articles you read while waiting for your car to be repaired, you know? But this one posed a question and then asked regular people what they thought. The question was, "If you help one of your children out financially, should you tell the others?"

Hmm. Good question, especially in this time of financial insecurity for young people. One of the respondents said, "Yes, you should tell the other children, because you shouldn't keep secrets from them."

Another said, "If you help one child out, you should keep it confidential."

Now I was struck by that, because (as usual) I agreed with whatever I was reading. (I'm really easy.) Oh, right! Keeping secrets is bad! Oh. Right. Keeping confidentiality is good.

Hmm. Okay, so I didn't actually come to a decision about this issue. But I did notice that both respondents used the same word (keep) and then another word that means the same basic thing. One talked of "keep secrets" and the other said "keep confidential."

Both those refer to the very same action: Doing something and saying nothing about it.

But from one view, that's "keeping secrets" and bad, and from the other view, that's "keeping confidentiality" and good.

For the writer, the existence of "connoted terms" like "secret" and "confidentiality" can be another tool in the toolbox. Those who live or die by rhetoric already know this. They know that the language is full of paired synonyms, one which could be positive in this context, and one which would be negative. And the one you choose can give a boost to the tone or feel of your sentence or paragraph.

Let's work on some of these pairs, just for fun. The ladies (talk about a connoted term :) will recall a list of masculine and feminine attributes that were actually the same:
Men are determined; women are stubborn.
Men are ambitious; women are pushy.
and there were reversals, where the attribute that was positive in women was negative in men:
Women are gentle; men are weak.
Women are nurturing; men are needy.

Okay, enough old-line feminism. :) Point is, if you want to make determination a negative, call it "stubbornness," right?

So what are some pairs like that?

My kids point out that the word "youth" almost always is connected to something negative, while "teen" is a pretty positive term, and "young adult" is quite positive.

How about "moral" and "moralistic?" Okay, they might mean something different, but how much of the difference is actual, and how much is connotation? That is, I might think (insert famous preacher's name) is "moralistic," but I bet he thinks he's "moral." The words have slightly different meanings, though the same basic meaning, and the connotation will probably be negative or positive.

"Interrogation" and "questioning or asking." Have you ever tried in a friendly fashion to get information out of a youth, I mean teen? He says, "Stop interrogating me!" and you say, all injured innocence, "I'm just asking!"

Even colors. I remember buying a lovely sweater that the boutique owner described as "citrine," but my dad called "baby shit yellow."

What about "escape" (positive) and "abscond" (negative)?

"Praise" and "flattery?"

What are some others, and how would you take advantage of their connotations in sentences or passages? How about dialogue?


Verb Agreement with Compound Subjects

Once upon a time I had to write a house style guide from scratch. Someday I'll do a post on the process of creating that guide, but in the meantime, I thought I would post some excerpts from it. Last week, in response to a bunch of questions about possessive nouns, we looked at the basic rules for apostrophes and apostrophe-s constructions. Today we'll look at compound nouns and the number of the verb. This is one of those little nitpicky things that can lead to big-time copy editor battles.


When a subject is a compound joined by the conjunction and, it takes a plural verb regardless of the number of each individual noun in the subject.

EXAMPLE: Lucy and Harry were childhood sweethearts.


When a subject is a compound composed of two singular nouns joined by or or nor, it takes a singular verb.

EXAMPLE: Either Lucy or Harry always orders apple pie.


When a subject is a compound composed of two plural nouns joined by or or nor, it takes a plural verb.

EXAMPLE: The Smiths or the Joneses want their pie heated.

Or/Nor With Singular and Plural

When a subject is a compound composed of a singular and a plural joined by or or nor, the verb agrees with the part of the subject closest to it.

EXAMPLE: Either Lucy or the Smiths are wrong.
EXAMPLE: Either the Smiths or Lucy is wrong.

Exception: When a compound noun is thought of as a single unit, it is treated as singular regardless of the number of the nouns contained therein. Therefore, “macaroni and cheese” (singular and singular), “peas and carrots” (plural and plural), and “chicken and dumplings” (singular and plural) each take singular verbs despite differences in the numbers of the nouns.

Also note: Odd singular-plural agreement constructions can be avoided by editing the structure of the sentence.
EXAMPLE: Either Lucy is wrong, or the Smiths are.


Sunday, November 21, 2010

Twain's last words

According to Newsweek's account of Mark Twain's autobiography, this is the last thing he ever wrote, after his second daughter died:

“I lost Susy thirteen years ago; I lost her mother—her incomparable mother!—five and a half years ago; Clara has gone away to live in Europe; and now I have lost Jean. How poor I am, who was once so rich! … Jean lies yonder, I sit here; we are strangers under our own roof; we kissed hands good-by at this door last night—and it was forever, we never suspecting it. She lies there, and I sit here—writing, busying myself, to keep my heart from breaking. How dazzlingly the sunshine is flooding the hills around! It is like a mockery.

“Seventy-four years old twenty-four days ago. Seventy-four years old yesterday. Who can estimate my age today?”


Saturday, November 20, 2010

Top Five Mistakes Authors Make in Proposals

I did this as a guest blog and am reposting here, so if you think you've read it before, well, you might have. :)


Let me start off with a dirty little secret: When you submit a proposal to editors or agents, you can't assume they'll read past the first page. I know, I know. It's not fair, etc. But let’s get real. They're really busy, and they have dozens, perhaps hundreds, of submissions a year. And their primary task in sorting through that slushpile is to reject most of the submissions so that they can go back to their real work (with the manuscripts they've already accepted).

Your job in submitting the proposal is to keep from giving them a reason to reject you quickly. You want the editor or agent to read through the whole proposal and ask for more, right? (Proposal for fiction is usually: Cover letter, short synopsis, first three chapters, but it's actually whatever they ask for in their guidelines.)

So here are the Top Five Mistakes that you might want to avoid:

  1. Typos, especially in the query letter, and mechanical errors in the first page of the synopsis and chapters. I can hear you groaning. You KNOW this, right? You don't need to be told, right? Then why, I ask you, do I see so many submissions and contest entries with the sort of errors that make me cringe? I know, I know, those careless clueless submitters are not you. Agreed. But we don't know what we don't know, so if you're getting very quick rejections, you might go over your proposal word by word to make sure that you haven't got "Big Name Publishing Comporation" in the address heading of your coverpage, or "Napolean" seventeen times in your Napoleonic-era spy story. Typos jump right out and attack the eyes of editors and agents, and you don't want to cause that kind of anguish.

Typos aren't the only mechanical errors that make an editor or agent send a quick no. I've started keeping a list of what we call "the marks of the amateur," which clue us in quickly to the "not ready for primetimeness" of this submitter. That's mean, isn't it? But it's reality. So if you don't want to be typed as an amateur, it might help to find out what makes an editor brand a submission as from a newbie. For me, it's dialogue punctuation. I figure that if you've been reading for twenty or thirty years and have never noticed that there's a comma between the "she said" and the quotation mark, you probably aren't all that receptive to learning.

For a friend of mine who has served her time as an agent's assistant (facing hundreds of manuscripts, 99.9% of which she was supposed to divert – read "reject"-- before they got to the agent), the primary "mark of an amateur" comes when the author uses the character name in every sentence. "There's a reason they invented pronouns!" she points out. Her boss is famous for her sensitive "ear" for the melody and rhythm of prose, and nothing is as discordant as a constant repetition of a name.

Probably all editors and agents have their own "marks", whether they share them or not. How do you find out what they are? Well, first I'd suggest asking the editor or agent. They all have blogs these days. Send a question (anonymous if you think best) which says, "What mechanical error in a submission clues you in that this isn't an accomplished stylist?"

A few typos, even a couple grammar errors, will probably get by. But don't count on it. Just remember that an editor especially has to look forward to editing this book, and if there's a recurrent error in the first few pages, she's got to consider how much time it will take to fix every single dialogue passage, or switch out 90% of the hero's name checks with "he and him and his." You don't want the editor's dominant impression upon reading your proposal to be, "Life is too short."

  1. The second mistake to avoid is coming across as crazy or obsessed, especially in the cover letter but also in the synopsis. While not every writer is crazy, I suspect just about every crazy person wants to be a writer, and their submissions slush up slushpiles. Most will get dinged because of mistake #1, but if they happen to be a very controlled obsessive, they might do everything right mechanically. Still the obsession will generally leak through in the cover letter, and if you're not crazy, you don't want to have the editor taking your impassioned and yet well-reasoned defense of the metric system as a signal that you are a crank.

Just remember that your cover letter is about your story, and your story is about the characters and what happens to them. Whatever obsession you have might have fueled the writing, and that's good. But keep the focus on the story, not your pet project.

For example, I've had several submissions where the cover letter goes into depth about the author's religious faith. If I worked at an inspirational or Christian publisher, this might be okay (I don't know). But it's beyond irrelevant to me in my job at a sexy romance house. I know that it's hard to know what's relevant or not to another person, but most aspects of your life are, take it from me, irrelevant. If the story is good, I don't need to know who your personal savior is. Of course, if the story is good, I suppose I should get beyond that fear of getting trapped in a relationship with someone who wants to save me, or sell me on the merits of metric. But an editor likely to have a heightened sensitivity to any "proselytizing" in the synopsis or chapters.

This is about the story. This isn't about your life or your passion or your obsession. Of course, what has made you you will come out in your voice, story choice, and characters, but let those do the talking for you.

  1. A confusing and/or boring synopsis. Well, first, let me say that you don't know whether the editor or agent will read your synopsis first or your chapters first. There isn't any rule. I tend to scan the synopsis quickly, just to make sure it's the sort of book my publisher will publish. If it's not, I'll send a quick rejection saying just that.

(Don't bother to send it if it's not the sort of thing this publisher publishes. I don't care if it's the second coming of Harry Potter—if we don't publish children's books, we're not likely to change our whole business and marketing plan for your book. Or maybe we will, but trust me, I'm not the one you need to talk to if you want that. WAY above my paygrade. Go over my head and right to the publisher—that's an actual position at most, uh, publishers. :)

Anyway, usually if I don't think much of the synopsis itself, I still will read the chapters. Plenty of great book writers are bad synopsis writers. However, a bad synopsis could derail your proposal because the editor doesn't make it to your book. So don't assume that the editor or agent will set aside an incoherent synopsis and judge just on the chapters. Make the synopsis as good as you can, given the length requirements.

Oh, right, mistakes to avoid. Well, the mistake is thinking that the synopsis is a summary of the PLOT. It should in fact be a summary of the STORY. What's the difference? Well, what's the difference between this:

Sheet music for Ave Maria

and this:

Pavarotti singing Ave Maria

The story is more than what happens. It's the journey of the characters, the emotion they experience, the theme and voice. All that should show up in your synopsis in some way. If this is a funny story, the synopsis should have humor. If the characters go through psychological agony, the synopsis should explore a bit of that.

I am aware, having written many of these damned things, that a synopsis is hard to get right. But having read even more of these damned things, I can tell you this: You will NOT write a good synopsis if you start with plot. I can just about guarantee this. The simplest plot sounds convoluted and tedious when you tell event and then event and then event. And if you have a truly complex plot? Well, I am going to get lost once you decide your job here is to give me a detailed map of the labyrinth.

So you might be asking, what do you write about if not what happens? You write about the situation (the small southern town "invaded" by freedom-riders in 1963) and you write about the characters (the African-American girl who has to integrate the high school, the politely racist shopowner who finds himself throwing rocks at her the first day of school, the college student from the North who joined the freedom-ride because he wanted to impress a liberal girlfriend). You write about how things change, and yes, you'll probably talk some about the plot events because they show the changing. But if you start your writing with the plot events, you'll never get beyond that, and your synopsis will likely be as excruciating to read as it was to write. "This happened, then that happened"—that's the worst model for a synopsis, and yet most of them start there. Don't. Don't try to revise a bad synopsis. Start over, and this time, tell us about the characters and the situation and what is wrong and what changes and why.

  1. And then in the opening of the first chapter, the most common big mistake is a lack of focus that results in confusion. I've read a lot of first pages where I'm exhausted just from trying to keep track of the names of nine characters and make sense of the situation, the people, the setting, the action, and the thoughts.

Look, the purpose of the first paragraph isn't to tell everything needed to understand the book. It's just to get us to read the second paragraph. :) But we probably won't read on if the first paragraph reads like this:

Aaron Cathcart ran his hand through his sweaty hair, gazed up at the Porter mansion on the hill, where it sat foreboding and grim against a dark sky, and began trudging up the gravel driveway towards the marble front steps. Along the way he passed a jasmine bush, and the pungent smell assaulted his nose. On either side of the door were footmen in the blue and purple Porter livery, and as he approached, they moved in unison to open the great oak doors so he could enter the hall.

Reading that, I've learned exactly one important thing—a character's name. Sure, I know there's a mansion, and it apparently belongs to the Porters, and they're rich enough to afford footmen. But I don't care, because I don't know if they matter to Aaron or if he just wants to use the phone to call the auto club.

Two things to remember about your opening: First, think of the opening as posing a question somehow that will tempt the reader into reading more. For example, the opening to Shirley Jackson's famous short story "The Lottery" poses the question, "What is this lottery they're gathering for?"

So the opening to Aaron's story could pose the question, "What's he afraid he'll find here?" or "Why is he entering the house of his enemy?" But the question has to be relevant to the story. Think about what question you want the reader to ask, and see if you can set that question up with the first few paragraphs.

Second, focus the opening. You simply can't get everything in there, the setting, the characters, the situation, the backstory, and you end up leaving out important stuff like the conflict. Don't even try to be comprehensive here, or you'll just confuse. Think about one thing you want to introduce. But make it important. Think about starting with the character in some conflict.

Aaron Cathcart stared up at the Porter mansion on the hill. That was the last place he wanted to go, and the Porters were the last people he wanted to ask for help. And if it wasn't for the lady unconscious in his stalled car, he'd walk the two miles to the next town. But he had no choice, if he was going to save her life.


Or maybe you want to start with character:

Aaron Cathcart never asked for help. Nope, not now, not ever. He could take care of himself. That's what he had in place of religion, a stony self-sufficiency. And this afternoon, if he had any choice in the matter, he'd walk away, down the hill and away from his stalled car. But he didn't have any choice, because he didn't have the right to let the lady die for his principles.

Or you could start with setting:

The Porter mansion stood grim on a barren hill, the ugliest site in this pretty county. It had a sort of grotesque pride up there, surrounded by a gravel drive and a flat expanse of lawn, the gray tiles of the roof blank against the dark sky. No one could want to be there, and yet the Porter family had lived there for decades, when they could surely afford something else.

But focus on something. Don't try to get everything into the first paragraph. After all, the whole point is to get the reader to read the second paragraph, where presumably will be other important stuff happening.

5. Limping to a conclusion. Usually in a proposal you send the first three chapters of the book. Agents especially are known to vary this—they might ask for the first chapter or the first fifty pages. At any rate, too many submitters are sending in proposals where the very last sentence or word don’t do anything to inspire the agent to ask for more. You don’t want your proposal to limp to a conclusion!

Again, think about your purpose in submitting this proposal—it’s to get the agent or editor to ask to see the whole book. So that last bit they read is your last chance to make them want more. They probably won’t want more if you:

· End in the middle of a line just because that’s the end of the fifty pages.

· End on a boring note, like “She took a shower and went to bed.”

· End on a resolution, like “He smiled, realizing that he’d finally won.”

First thing to recognize is—they might determine what "a proposal" is, but you’re the one who determines what that is FOR YOU. If she says she wants three chapters, you don’t actually have to stop exactly at the point before “Chapter Four.” You can manipulate a bit here. Let’s say that the first two chapters are long and action-packed, and the third is more clean-up and transition to the turning point in Chapter Four. Well, you can take those first two chapters and make them three! Just divide them differently. For most of us, chapter divisions are fairly arbitrary—a chapter might be three scenes, might be two—and you can divide them differently to make more or fewer chapters.

Second trick—if you’re given a page limit, you can make tiny changes to get more into that 50 pages (or fewer). If you generally use Courier 12, try Times New Roman 12, which is about 15% smaller but is still 12 point, don’t ask me why. So that will give you 3-4 more pages to work with. Yes, all the agents know this, but unless they specifically say “no TNR,” go for it.

Of course, that’s only useful if those 3-4 extra pages are going to be a nice come-on. That’s the third trick. Whatever you need to do to make this work, end the proposal on something intriguing, something that captures the reader’s attention. A cliffhanger works here for high-action books, but a quieter book might need a mere suggestion of conflict or irresolution, something that makes the editor look around for the next page, and, not finding it, send you a request for the complete manuscript. Often this requires another sentence or paragraph at the end of a seeming resolution. Like take that one above:

He smiled, realizing that he’d finally won.

But as he was leaving the room, he looked back at Mary. Wait a minute. If he’d been the one to win, why was she the one laughing triumphantly?

So don’t limp to a conclusion of your proposal. Make sure the end of the chapters is an invitation to read on. A hint of conflict, an irresolution, will help encourage the editor or agent to ask for the rest.